Opinion | Columns

In praise of ignorance

It can be good to be ignorant. Sometimes not knowing things can be a source of genuine happiness for us, especially at the beginning of a new semester.

This isn’t to deny that ignorance of some things—like where our parents hid the cookie jar—can be incredibly frustrating. However, not knowing some things—like the fact that hippopotami trample humans who come between them and the nearest river—can be downright dangerous. We Columbians usually associate ignorance with the distinctly unpleasant feeling of staggering out of a midterm having left multiple pages blank. 

But to recognize when you don’t know something can cultivate a humble spirit that longs to learn. Socrates, who boldly asked questions about everything from the nature of the afterlife to the definition of love, started with the legendary admission, “I know one thing: that I know nothing.” If we start by acknowledging our ignorance, we can adventure forward into learning new things; we don’t have to stay ignorant. 

The most wonderful teachers—at Columbia and throughout history—couple this humility with restless curiosity. Last semester, Professor William Theodore de Bary (world-renowned for his expertise in East Asian classics) told students in his Nobility and Civility class that he does not teach the Analects of Confucius. Instead, he invites students into a conversation about the Analects. Despite his decades of reading Confucius, de Bary knows that the ancient text contains insight that he has yet to tap, and his students may be able to bring these riches to light.

I’m hoping to learn from de Bary’s example of heroic humility as I get my first dose of musical education with Music Humanities this semester. Growing up in rural Mozambique, I never learned what a measure is or how to count beats. Being that ignorant is really embarrassing. But I’m trying to let my ignorance motivate me instead of silence me. I’ve had the chance to taste of Bach, Chopin, and Holst, so I know that there is enormous beauty in the Western musical tradition that I want to explore. 

This is one of the delights of the humanities in general and the Core in particular. Great poetry and great philosophy make you feel foolish. Virgil and Aquinas each have subtleties that could provide material for decades of delightful study. And those are just two authors! There are over two million volumes in Butler. There’s far too much to be known in the world for our little minds to grasp in a lifetime.

It’s always been difficult to be humble enough to recognize how little we know but also maintain a passionate desire to learn all we can.

But René Descartes and his Discourse on the Method added to our difficulties. Descartes is colloquially famed for his maxim, “I think, therefore I am.” He came to that conclusion after a rigorous—and one might say, obsessive—process of removing from his mind every proposition of which he could not be absolutely certain. Basic beliefs like, “The material world exists,” and “Other people have consciousness,” he dismissed as too doubtful.

He decided that the only proposition that could not be doubted was that his own mind doing the doubting did exist. From that rock-solid base, he tried to build outward to discover other certainties using the same ironclad logic.

His method strikes me as unhelpful and downright corrosive. Maybe that controlling spirit works well enough for pure logic, but if I followed the Cartesian method in Music Hum, I wouldn’t learn very much. To claim certainty is to assert control, to seize power over facts and ideas and truth claims. Descartes robs us of the wonder of admitting that the world is full of mysteries beyond our control and our ken. That doesn’t mean we should give up the quest to know; it’s a quest full of a risky joy, requiring our hearts and wills as well as our minds.

That joy leads me to love leading Veritas discussion groups. In small groups once a week, first-years meet with their floormates, humbling themselves to admit their ignorance about one another’s values and world views. Yet the discussion doesn’t just delve into questions of identity. These small communities of truth-seekers confront the “big questions” together, daring to imagine that they might find answers to, “Does my life have meaning?” and, “Is love real?” and, “Could morality be objective?”

Our Columbia community could—and should—be a place where we acknowledge the finitude of our minds and the vastness of what there is to be known and set out on the adventure of discovery together. Different disciplines—from philosophy to physics, and literature to linguistics—ask perennial human questions about our place in the world. The Core gives us a platform from which to glimpse the unity of truth and yet teaches us to bow before the depth and breadth of it all. Those names are high up on Butler to make us feel small and wonderfully ignorant.

Luke Foster is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. He is the president of the Veritas Forum and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Fridays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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